GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Function versus form: public service cuts


The National-led coalition government is undertaking a brutal assault on the public service by implementing blunt arbitrary cuts on public service staffing. The cuts are intended to be up to 7.5% but in some ministries and departments it could be higher.

Its official justification is that there is too much ‘fat’ in the public service. Consequently, by getting rid of the ‘fat’, the public service will, ipso facto, become more efficient.

Initial announcements have been made for the Ministries of Primary Industry and Health. The latter looks like around 25%. Reportedly the Ministry of Pacific Peoples could be up to 40%.

Cost to human lives and Wellington economy

Much of the reaction has rightly been on the human aspect; the effects of job losses where future employment opportunities are, at best, limited.

David Seymour: his mastery repertoire of political soundbites is extended to include cruelty

This will be devastating for many public servants and their families. It makes the soundbite response of ACT leader and cabinet minister David Seymour that these announced cuts are “good” particularly cruel.

Newshub described his response as “dancing on the graves” of the livelihoods of these affected public servants (21 March): Dancing on the graves of public servants livelihood.

Another reaction, again understandable, is the impact on Wellington’s economy. As Aotearoa New Zealand’s capital it is the centre of the public service.

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Mayor Tory Whanau to raise concerns over impact on Wellington with government ministers

Wellington Mayor Tory Whanau is seriously concerned (as is the local Chamber of Commerce) and plans to raise this directly with Prime Minister Chris Luxon and other relevant ministers as reported by Radio New Zealand (27 March): Wellington mayor plans to raise concerns with government ministers.

Form before function!

As important as these two issues are, there is a further wider one that deserves special consideration. It is a golden rule of political and organisational decision-making that the poorer the process, the worse the outcome is likely to be.

The Government’s public service cuts are shaping up to be arbitrary ‘slash-and-burn’ with a very blunt instrument. It centres on an across-the-board percentage without either being evidence-based or consideration of the impact on existing functions.

Form should follow function; public service cuts are the other way around

It is a fundamental ABC of decision-making, especially that which leads to some form of restructuring, that function comes before form.

The more this approach is taken, the better and more sustainable the outcome. When the reverse applies, form comes before function, the poorer and unsustainability of the outcome.

In 2022 the former Labour government committed the cardinal error of putting form before function in its disastrous restructuring of  the health system. Today New Zealanders are reaping the consequences of that error.

Now the National-led coalition government is repeating the same error with these public service cuts.

In the context of the impact on trade, the risks of putting form before function are well outlined by Public Service Association National Secretary Duane Leo in a media release on the planned cuts to the Ministry of Primary Industries (21 March): Cuts huge risk to primary sector exports.

Demonising false ‘back office to frontline’ narrative

The government is rationalising its cuts by arguing that they are shifting resources from the ‘back office’ to the ‘frontline’.

To the extent that that these two terms have validity it is a false narrative that also cruelly demonises the former. This is by devaluing what they do because they are scapegoated as the problem; as ‘fat in the system’.

The reality is that that the ‘back office’ and ‘frontline’ functions are invariably integrated with each other. The latter depends on the former; the more those in the ‘back office’ can do their jobs, the better those on the frontline are able to do theirs.

New Zealand’s health system experience had a negative experience of this false narrative under the previous National-led government (2008-17).

In the lead up to the 2008 general election, National’s health spokesperson Tony Ryall campaigned on shifting resources from the ‘back office’ to the clinical frontline in public hospitals.

As health minister Tony Ryall imposed counter-productive ‘cap’ on demonised ‘back-office’ positions

Once he became health minister he enacted this slogan by imposing an arbitrary cap on so-called back office positions. This proved to be both demonising for these particular employees and counter-productive.

These ‘back office’ positions position were closely integrated with the work of the clinical frontline, from booking and secretarial staff to operational managers.

The ‘cap’ not only made them victims of a political ‘blame culture’. It also made the work of health professionals more difficult. The latter would much rather have been underpaid health professionals than overpaid secretaries.

It also did nothing to relieve the pressure on hospital based health professionals. Instead it worsened by the interconnected increasing both acute admissions and workforce shortages. A function before form approach could have prevented this.

Today there is an obvious example of this in the police force. The Police have been by required to government to make an artificial distinction between ‘back office’ and frontline.

105 operators are indispensable for the work of police officers

The ‘back office’ includes those non-sworn staff who take and prepare reports of non-emergency situations either online or by 105 calls. These reports are then forwarded on to police officers.

Their work is highly integrated with the work of police officers. Imposing staff cuts on 105 operators, even if only by attrition, would only serve to make police officer work much more difficult.

Does Chris Luxon’s government really want to do this to an already overworked police force strongly tempted by superior working conditions in Australia? Have I just asked a rhetorical question? Again this comes from a form before function approach.

What the government should have done

Another ABC is that improving processes is the most effective way of achieving sustainable systems improvement, including cost effectiveness.

This experience includes New Zealand’s health system when the overall leadership culture was supportive of it.

Prime Minister Chris Luxon should have practised what he preaching when in Air NZ

Process improvement has two underlying principles. The first principle is that function should always come before form. Those who start from this premise are more likely to succeed; those who don’t are more likely to fail.

The second principle is that those who do the job, or work alongside them, generally know best how to improve the job.

This is where the greatest experience and expertise rests. It is also where the greatest interest and commitment to process improvement resides.

In the mid-2010s, when Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, I attended two meetings to discuss these principles and their application in the health system.

One of the speakers was then Air New Zealand chief executive Chris Luxon. He preached with conviction the value of this approach.

It is most unfortunate for both the public service and those who, in so many different ways depend on it, that his government is not practicing today what he preached then.



Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes


  1. Not a single mention of how much Labour massively increased the size of the Public service, much wailing and crying, and no insite that their must be reductions, not every job is sacred.

      • Or the fact that the IMF has warned Willis and National not to borrow more money for tax cuts, reform tax and add a capital gains tax . She ignored more educated advice for her own.
        So instead of debt Willis has cut out an important link between the north and south Islands, cut funding to policing and health, education etc.
        As with all right wing governments New Zealands infrastructure is severely depleted with their desire to ” save”. This flawed approach always sees our country suffer in the long run.
        Yeti, you are economically naive.

      • Today from MBIE –
        ” Now they’re getting rid of people covering policy work that the ministers want. Realistically, I do not know how the Government expects it can deliver on its services. They are cutting policy people and those who make legislation. They can’t do the work without the workers,” the MBIE staffer said.

        Oh yes they can do the work without State policy development.
        Research ,Evidence or knowledge is not needed by the NACTZIs,
        the BIG Oil / Mining / Private companies will do it for them with their own ‘facts ‘.

        What the public don’t know won’t hurt them, right ?

    • What wailing and crying by another right wing troll. Steven Joyce, Bill English, Simon Bridges, Murray McCully collectively employed by this Government on $10,000 a day is the most disgraceful act ever seen given the decimation of the much need public service.
      At no point did you do any analysis on how many are needed in the public sector, you just spouted the same right wing rhetoric you heard from the Government ministers pre and post election.
      The results of this Governments cull is now seen in full effect as the police leave in droves for Australia.

      • Those levels of remuneration and spending are at the low end when compared to the ridiculous amounts paid by the Labour Government.

    • He did not mention the understaffed government services inherited or the covid controls that were required during their term in government, most of us have working memory cells & can see the big picture while you are still looking at a small fraction of the picture that has been magnified so that it fills your viewing space & you don’t want to see any information that disturbs your opinion.

      • Yes and where did that understaffing begin ?
        It began with the previoius National party govts under Bolger Shipley and Key.
        Labour every time has to employ double that number to bring the public services back to where they need to be.
        While the right spin the ATLAS NETWORK Conservative line of SO CALLED WASTEFUL spending .

        Any wonder our public servants are buggering off to Aussie and our health and education systems are on their knees.

        Meanwhile you right wingers cry crocodile tears you have to wait in A +E waiting rooms up to multiple hours or cant get operations.

        You are all bloody self centered hypocrites.

  2. Ultimately, the neoliberal agenda, is defund public services – to lower expectations so that the public no longer rely on their government. This also facilitates the looting of remaining assets.

    The constant surprise to me is that these endless displays of gross corruption and dereliction of duty do not result in routine public execution of the malefactors.

    I want a public service, a health system, police, teachers. Economists, and 90% of MPs, are entirely dispensable.

  3. I don’t particularly want my doctor doing their own photocopying thanks. Most of those idiots cheering from the sidelines have no idea what a public service does or at least only a vague one. Much of it is devoted to protecting the public. So the next time there is a pandemic … Or when some exotic pest is introduced … We’ll be in the shit, unless it happens to inconvenience the wealthy.

  4. and the lie that this government has increased security at hospitals .Yes the did for 2 months .The extra security stopped at the begining of march as we witnessed over the weekend .
    My daughter has left hospital nurseing because it is not safe and there are no police available when they have an issue .
    Another fucking lie from Luxon this morning

  5. if they were axing spare baggage in middle managment that might be ok but we all know the axe will fall on frontline staff further degrading the public service

  6. I don’t care about public servants losing their jobs. Go train as phlebotomists. There is an acute shortage of these folks who do something worthwhile.

    I want frontline services. Real Drs not spin Drs. We have had such a huge increase in public servants and no benefits to show for it.

    • What about our POLICE do you care about them anker as they are expected to deliver the moron governments law an order policy. Spin is what is spewing out of our leader’s mouth no wonder he is ageing fast.


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